About four years ago, on a horribly rainy day I, was walking through the city when something stopped me. It was something I saw lying in the gutter in front of me.
It was a broken umbrella. I stood there, in the rain, looking down at this poor umbrella, half broken and drenched, completely helpless. And no one seemed to care. Everyone just kept walking.
And at that moment, it seemed like one of the saddest things in the whole world. I did not come up with the idea for a film at that moment, but I still remember this overwhelming feeling of sadness for something that should "just" have been an object.
The other thing that inspired The Blue Umbrella was something I had always done and still do. It is seeing faces and characters in everything. At one point I started documenting these, giving them names and writing down bits of their story.
At Pixar, when you pitch a short, you need to pitch the whole story. Beginning to end. And after working with the lovely folks at development for a while you pitch your story to a group of Directors and heads of story. In my case those were Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen, Jason Katz, Bob Peterson and Pete Sohn. After they liked my story, they gave me the go ahead you pitch to John Lasseter.
When prepping to pitch The Blue Umbrella and writing the script I started to get into the habit of formatting the script in a way that would naturally pace me the right way when verbally pitching it.
Each paragraph represents a story point that I want to clearly emphasize, probably even making a short break after each and look at my audience. I split each paragraph into even smaller chunks to memorize them better and to help myself to properly enounciate each one when pitching.
In between are the images I showed during my original pitch of the story. I had them printed out and glued to thick black cardboards so I could turn them over to reveal to the audience at the exact moment that you see them inserted here.
At the end of the pitch I said that I have two small test I wanted to show. They were tests I had done over the course of the last year, before I even had the idea for the story. But I thought they might be interesting to look at.
The first one I had done a few weeks after finding that poor broken umbrella. I had a bit of time on my hands and wanted to animate something. Iooked at the photo of the broken umbrella that I had taken and became curious how umbrellas would move if they could just fly away by themselves.
The second test I had made after having just been to a concert of Sarah Jaffe. I fell in love with her music and voice and desperately wanted to pitch her an idea for a music video. But I needed a concept for it. While walking through the city and listing to her songs I suddenly got this idea for a music video where a whole city would sing one of her songs. I never got to make the whole thing cause it was too much work but I finished these two shots as a proof of concept.
Once we had a green light we went out into the city and searched for all the characters that we might want to be in our film. These are some of the early mock-ups of city characters that we made. Some we used in the final film, some sadly didn't make it. We tried to find faces that would give us a wide range of emotion, that had mouths that could open and eye sockets that could give us the possibility of eye direction. But most of all we just wanted them to have interesting character and be lovable.
Oh and then there is of course the very first concept for our two lovely umbrellas.
Next we wanted to find out how the physicality of a group of real umbrellas feels like. What movements they could do and how much you could put them through distress before they bend and break. So one evening we decided to gather a bunch of our lovely development folks to re-enact rough story ideas and play around with what other fun things could be had with a group of umbrellas.
Another test we did was to see how much movement an umbrella has when the owner thinks he just holds it still. And how much one rotates an umbrella when just slightly glancing over to the person next to you. We had painted eyes and faces on the umbrellas but they looked a bit dead so I put animated ones on them in post to see how alive they would seem and to test how separate from their owners their characters would feel.
Here are a few super early test for getting a grip on how our film might look in the end. These are all done super quick and dirty, just with a few days of work for each. The goal is not to have a perfect end result but rather to make everyone on the team understand and get on board with the overall artistic direction that we will be heading in.
These three tests were meant for:
1. How would it look and feel like to live in a world of umbrellas.
2. How might the faces of the umbrellas look, animate and integrate.
3. A super rough test exploring the look and feel of a city at night and how to possibly strike a balance between photo realism and lush painterly colors.
One thing that we are lucky to be able to do at Pixar is that we can just grab a bunch of people from our amazing art department and brainstorm with them for an hour or two about design ideas. Here are some of what was left on the table after one of those session with artwork from the amazing and lovely Dice Tsutsumi, Ricky Nierva, Robert Kondo, Jay Schuster, Daniela Strijleva, Dan Holland and Jennifer Chang.
Once we felt confident enough that we had explored the possibilities of umbrellas enough our storyboarder Nate Stanton started beat boarding the whole short from beginning to end. Beat Boards are about transforming what had previously just been words to now communicate through only visuals. They are the very first step towards a first story reel.
After refining the Beat Boards until we are happy and pitching them to Pete Docter and John Lasseter we started to flesh them out, edit them together, add sound design and music and created our very first story reels.
These we then screen to not just our crew and Pete and John but to story folks and others that ideally haven't heard the story yet and thus have a fresh eye. We then adjust and change these reels, screen them again and again and again. My rough guess is that we probably had et least around 20-30 iterations of these.
What previously had just been words now become visuals and sounds without any words.
Once we were confident enough with our Story Reels we knew how many City Characters we needed, what their purpose was and what they needed to be able to do. So we had our amazing art department folks play around with where we could have faces in a city and how these faces could function.
Here is a selection of the amazing work that Paul Abadilla, Paul Topolos, Jay Shuster di for The Blue Umbrella. In there are early explorations, a color mood and Model Sheets that are given to the modelers to build the characters in 3D.
One thing we realized early on is that we started to have such a personal and emotional connection to our characters that we needed to tie them names. It also made talking about them much easier. In order to get new people that came on to our crew up to speed, I made this City Charatcers poster that everyone had a print out from. A few of these changed name and some ended up not in the short but this is what we used during the whole production.
Once our Story Reel started to be roughly representative of our location and we knew what the spacial needs of our set would be we set out to build the first rough CG model of our set.
The first step was collecting reference, walking a lot through cities, especially New York, and taking tons of photos along the way. Once we found a street crossing that we liked for its general feel we designed our own based on it but adjusted to fit the specific needs of our Story Reel. (Ex. much wider sidewalks than any real city would have)
We wanted to keep the unpolished, unassuming feel of the Singing City test I had done and so we started working on creating a cinematography style that would keep the feel of this test while not being so shaky that it would distract the audience.
To further test this out we recreated a rough CG version the Singing City test and created a few test shoots to further define the style of camera movements and its feel. With the goal in mind to define a style that we'd feel comfortable with using for the whole film.
With the opening of The Blue Umbrella we always wanted to give the audience the feeling that they are watching the real world, that they are in a typical big and busy city. Full of cars and full of people.
As reference we shot footage in New York and San Francisco trying to capture how a place like this feels like and then edited it together as reference and inspiration for our first pass of building shots in Layout.
The resulting shots are our very first pass on shot ideas for the opening of The Blue Umbrella. In this stage we overbuild, meaning we create as many shot showing the same thing as we have ideas of different approaches to showing the action. Once we have exhausted our creative ambitions here we sit down with editing and play around with this footage to find the right way of editing it all together. Ideally striking a balance between visually interesting shots and tight storytelling and a clear flow of information.
After building tons of coverage for every single action in the short and editing them together we finally had our Layout Reel. These of course god through tons of test screening for clarity and general feedback, resulting in lots of more iterations.
And even on the story scale we keep changing story moments to tighten up and clarify the story.
One big change to the Story Reel that happened in the Layout phase was that we got rid of the part where Blue tries in lots of different ways to get back to red. We felt this was dragging out a bit to long and wasn't really conveying new information. But what we did come up with was a subway entrance that Blues owner is heading towards and that act as a ticking clock in regards to how much time Blue has left to escape from his owner.
Since umbrellas (in contrast to the city characters) by default have no faces we wanted to visualize them in a style as opposite as possible to the photo realness of the world. We wanted to boil an expression down to basically just two dots and a line.
Starting with scribbles from our brainstorm session we tried to reduce them to a handful of stylistically super simple emotions that would still read clearly.
But once we did a 2d animation test to see if we can sell all needed emotions and subtleties with our faces we realized that we would need to add in a bit of detail again.
The last set of images are tests that our supervising animator Ross Stevenson did to make sure our CG facial rig is flexible enough to transform the simple facial shape from a simple line to a complex emotional expression when needed.
I was worried that when animating the city characters it would not feel cohesive and slightly off if materials like stone, cement and rusty metal would just transform and squash and stretch.
So our animation supervisor Ross Stevenson and I came up with the idea of treating the city characters as if they are pixilation or stop motion animation. Meaning we purposefully used held frames in their animation to have their movement convey a rougher and more jerky feel that would be more in tune with the material they are made of.
These are our first test with this style. We were still playing around with how many frame we could hold a pose without it looking off putting. The other thing we tested a lot and Carlo Voegele's test is an early testament to it, is how cartoony or how limited we wanted the city's movement to be.
Initially we tried out more cartoony movements but soon realized that this would take away from the realism of the city.
Here are a couple of glimpses into the animation day to day.
First is a an excerpt of our initial animation kick off meeting. This is where I walked all our animators through the whole film and talked about the characters intent, motivation and my thoughts and hopes of what to archive in animation. The full meeting took roughly over an hour, this is an excerpt of me talking about the city coming to life.
Next is a clip that sadly didn't record audio when I took it but it still shows quite nicely how our animation supervisor Ross Stevenson acts out what he thinks could be improved on the animation of Blue's owner struggling with Blue.
In the third clip you can see our main rigger Jason show us how Blue's rig can be adjusted for him being half broken and drenched. We tried to use as little as possible cloth simulation for the Umbrella and Jason rigged Blue in a way that the animators had a lot of control over the cloths movement.
Next is one of the so called "Animation Walkthroughs" where Ross and I would walk to the animators offices and answer any questions or thoughts they might have in regards to the shots they are currently working on.
Last up is JTop going through the lists of shots and animation fixes that are still in the system and asking us about priorities and order in which these need to be addressed.
ps. Sorry about the low quality of some of these clips.
Despite being already in animation we keep screening our reels to get feedback on clarity and where we could still improve things.
Here are two examples that I though were worth sharing.
The "Falling in Love" beat got two interesting reactions during test screenings. The first was that some people were wondering if Blue knew Red or if there was some kind of previous history between them. The second was that it didn't feel like Blue's falling in love with red was a big enough thing. Especially since the rest of the film relies on the believability of this moment.
The second clip shows what we changed. First we shortened the length of how long it takes for the camera to pan over to Red. This way the audience doesn't start to wonder if there is something more than just a chance encounter. The second thing we changed was that we added another shot on Blue to spend more time showing his falling in love with Red. This way we have one full shot that is just about seeing Red the way Blue sees her.
The "Shelter" beat is interesting in regards to the separation of how the audience and our main character gets new story moments. In our Original version we see that Blue sees something and then pan up to reveal what he sees. But we thought it would be great to see Blue's reaction to seeing Red. That is why in the second clip he doesn't look up before we pan up. This way Red is first revealed to the audience and then, in a separate shot on Blue, it is revealed to him and we can see his reaction.
For a lot of us and especially for Pixar making a film look photo real was a first. The reason for this look decision was born out of the Lisa animation test that I had done and there was a certain kind of magic to it because it was a real city, because Lisa was a real object. And I wanted to keep this kind of magic.
So here you can see our very first renders that came back and our very first animated clip that came back from the render farm.
This is when our paranoia started. Will we be able to make it look real? Because these pictures clearly don't look photo real yet. And it became a tricky and rough journey since it is sometimes hard to say exactly why it doesn't look real. Mostly it just feels slightly off. And sadly often in photo real cg, things become horribly artificial looking.
What it came to for me though was an attention and love to detail. And a love to the history of every detail in a city. Things in a city are not just dirty or messy for no reason at all. The black marks on a mailbox are from someone putting their shoe there to tie the shoe laces. The white paint splatters on the sidewalk are from a previous paint on the building that is now orange. Grass that grows in asphalt cracks has been walked over a million times and thus has a certain look to it.
So when we saw these first renders we knew that we had a lot of work ahead of us.
Since our short takes place in a big city we wanted not only a lot of physical aging but also sings of people having lived in this place for a long time already. A big part of that is street art and graffiti.
So we had the amazing Cassandra Smolcic and Paul Abadilla let their imagination run wild in regards to these. Some of them we reused from Monsters University so you might find a tag for a sorority or two in there, for others Cassandra and Paul created fun tags and street names for a lot of our crew members.
Oh and then we of course needed a lovely name and logo for the corner cafe where Blue and Red get separated and ultimately end up together in front of.
Despite being photo real I always wanted to the film to be full of lush and bold color choices and push the painterliness of our lights much farther that it generally is being done in CG animation.
To plan out the overall structure of the whole film I scribbled together this small chart to explain where Blue is part of the film, where red is and where I wanted the film to explode into a dance of colors. I also annotated how strong the rain will be in each moment of the film to bring the weather into all our color choice considerations.
The amazing Paul Abadilla then took these crude sketches and translated them into this beautiful set of color keys that would then guide our lighters into the right direction of the overall color arc of our film.
Initially I thought of the film as starting out in blueish tones of early nighttime and then bringing in a few red reflections of the still setting sun. But since for me the starting of the rain was the main thing i wanted to celebrate we decided to have the rain being the element that as soon as it starts brings the color into the film.
Red of course comes in as soon as Blue sees her and always stood for warmth and romantic. Every time Red is in the frame her warm light bathes the scene into warmth.
Blue is a bit more complex as it symbolized water and rain and thus our main character but it also bathes our shots when our blue umbrella is lying in the gutter on the side of the street and is literally "feeling blue".
Last is a clip we shot as reference for the beauty of colors and the magic of a city at night. This is the mood we wanted to achieve from our city backdrop once we focus on our umbrellas falling in love.
The Rain. I wanted to pay special attention to it since for me the film itself is a love declaration to the rain.
Based on the structure chart we mapped out the intensity and the "kinds" of rain that we wanted to have in the film. All based on the story beat and the emotion we wanted to convey to the audience.
We went through great lengths to generate a rain that could be adjusted for all purposes, mostly based on how much we would motion blur it: long, soft blur for romantic / short or no blur for harsh.
But this turned out not to be enough since rain moves at such a fast speed. What our amazing sfx crew came up with is that we used long streaks of water as rain instead of the singular round drop you find in reality. This gave us even more control over soft vs. harsh and not only that. Because we made this stretched raindrop shape bumpy we were able to get much more glittering out of it in lighting.
The last two videos give you a glimpse into the reviews we had with our sfx and lighting crew talking about what was needed for the rain. Because the tricky thing is, without proper light, you won't be able to tell if the rain looks good. So we had to bounce the shots forth and back between lighters and effects artists to be able to get what we wanted.
Creating the sounds of an animated film always feels like magic. Be default nothing in our films makes any sounds and the we create all these sounds and make them appear to be caused by the objects in our film.
The first chart shows a rough overall structure of the music and the sound effects that I charted out for the film. This was just as a rough guideline and starting point for discussion.
Next is a nice example of how much difference sound can make. In the first half of the clip you can hear what we referred to as "harsh" rain sounds. The idea was that it should sound like rain that you definitely do not want to be in. The second half has our "soft" or romantic sound. It feels warmer and more cozy, kind of like gentle rain on a tent the you have taken shelter under.
Next up a short clip of us recording the sounds the fabrics of umbrellas make when rubbed against each other. This became a hugely important sound all throughout the film.
After this is a clip of our amazing sound designer Barney Jones creating the sound that our traffic light FlipFlap makes when he opens his mouth. The first sound Barney does in sync to the action, the rest are alternate version that we can later on try out as well.
The last clip gives a glimpse into a finished sound design session. Every dot represents a sound that was created by us and is now being played at the appropriate time of the film.
Based on the overall arc of the Music Structure Chart Jon Brion composed the beautiful Score of The Blue Umbrella.
In the first clip you can see the Orchestration Score, the setup of the soundboard and a glimpse on the recording stage.
We did several passes just with certain instruments in order to be able to play around with the mix of the score during Sound Mixing at the end. The simplicity of the two Harps was so beautiful that I sat down in the recording room just to listen to them preform their lovely parts.
The third clip shows the setup that was put on the sound recording board. Each slider represents a mix down of certain tracks of the sound design and music. Just Cars, just atmospheric sound, main rain, background rain, violas, cellos, harps... all so that the sound mixer can easily adjust them on the fly while watching the film over and over again.
The last clip shows us going a couple of times through the opening of our film to get the balance of the sounds of the city just right.
To maintain the unpolished shooting style while still being able to meticulasly control the camera movements we played around with a lot of different options of how to achieve this.
What this led us to is that we build our shots the traditional way so we were perfectly able to control how our cameras move. Then we continued normally with finalizing which shots we use in editorial and then having them taken over by animation. After animation was mostly done and we knew what movements and what timing the umbrellas would have, we went to our Camera Capture stage to basically reshoot all our shots but with a hand held capture system.
The first clip shows an early test we did where we tried out different input technologies to get a real hand movement into our cameras.
n the second is one of our final sessions setting up the camera system to capture our hand held movements. Bigger moves like dollies or tracks we left animated and only captured the pan and tilt movements of the camera. We normally did multiple takes of each shot and then send them over to editorial to figure out which ones edit best. After capturing we also went back to the computer with some shots to correct slight errors and framing slips that happened during the capture sessions.
Productions, especially the middle part, are rough times. You are far enough into it to have lost sight of where you started and have still so much work ahead that you can't see the end of it. To cheer everyone up I made these little postcards that we gave everyone to show them what an amazing short we were all making.
Next is a selection of a bunch of Poster designs we made to finally end on the one you probably all know. Initially we didn't restrict ourselves to a certain style, even trying out a few that use the realistic look of our film. But in the end we all felt that the simple designs of the posters that Cassandra Smolcic did was the truest to the soul of our film.
Once our film was out in the world and got nothing but love and praise, I put together this little poster that collected some of my favorite quotes from twitter.
And last but not least, I wanted to put up the end credit plates here. Because without our amazing and unbelievably dedicated and talented team we would have never been able to achieve what we did. Animated films are team work and that is probably nowhere truer than at Pixar.